Tony Heath has gotten used to paying what he calls a "blindness tax" on technology.

Any time Heath or any of his blind or vision-impaired friends purchase technology products, they have to pay hundreds of extra dollars to have the product modified to accommodate their needs.

But with a voice-over mode built into Apple iPhones, no upgrades are necessary.

And Heath, the director of access technology at ForSight Vision, 1380 Spahn Ave., is collecting donations of old iPhones and iPads so that blind and vision-impaired residents in York can benefit from the technology.

"The iPhone is unique because it is the first communication product available that is accessible right out of the box before you have to pay for features needed for sight assistance," said Heath.

Tony Heath, service coordinator at ForSight Vision in York City, demonstrates how the voice-over mode in his iPhone works. The smart phone allows people
Tony Heath, service coordinator at ForSight Vision in York City, demonstrates how the voice-over mode in his iPhone works. The smart phone allows people who are visually impaired to be more independent. (Randy Flaum photo)

Heath, who is severely vision-impaired, said it took him less than a few days to learn how to operate the iPhone using the voice-over mode, thanks in part to podcasts available online explaining the technology.

"If you would have told me five or 10 years ago that a totally blind person would be able to use a touch screen I would have told you that you were crazy," Heath said. "It's just amazing. Apple is ingenious."

Heath is hoping more companies will follow suit with Apple and release other products that do not come with additional costs to upgrade the product.

As beneficial as iPhones and iPads have the potential to be in the blind community, cost is often a barrier, he said.

The unemployment rate among blind and visually impaired persons is very high, said Heath.

"People are also leery of it because of the learning curve," Heath said.

Providing lessons: By collecting used Apple products and providing lessons at ForSight Vision, Heath hopes to help individuals overcome both of those obstacles.

Heath also enjoys using a color identifier app on his iPhone that allows him to hold the phone up to any object and hear a voice telling him what color that object is.

The Viz Whiz app allows users to take a picture and ask a question about it, and receive an answer within two to five minutes.

For instance, when Heath was traveling and forgot to ask his wife if the outfit he had packed matched, he took a picture to send the app and soon received an answer.

Teaching blind people to use iPhones is easier than teaching them how to use computers, he said.

When he gives computer lessons, the operating systems are all so different, and if a person has a different version than the one he is teaching from they can quickly become confused.

But with all iPhones being identical, Heath anticipates lessons going much smoother for everyone.

"And I've never had an iPhone crash like a computer," said Heath.

Anyone is welcome to donate iPads or iPhone 4 or higher at ForSight Vision, 1380 Spahn Ave., Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 4:30 p.m. For more information call Bill Rhinesmith at 848-1690 ext. 103.

-- Reach Chelsea Shank at 505-5432 or cshank@yorkdispatch.com